Hello! N4D here to discuss about one of my favorite games, Dragalia Lost.
IO - Imperial Onslaught
HDT - High Dragon Trials
T1 - High Dragon Trial tier 1 weapons
FS - Force strike
2C FS - A shortened way of saying 2 taps and 1 fs after.
Since I do not know which parts of the game Matsura has worked on when he was director, I will be using Okada's name for Dragalia's current state. But I recognize that Matsura probably made many decisions for its future already before he stepped down.
Let’s talk about game design. The core principle of a good game is to induce favorable emotional responses that reinforces a person to have a desire to progress until a temporary or permanent ending. Unless the game was made as a passion project, initial capital investment will be required to fund the production of the game. And as an investor, they are expecting to make a return on their initial monetary support. This is where a very difficult balancing act is formed, a dance between making a return that satisfies an investor who shelled out $500,000 of their own capital and whether a player will financially support the game or not. This article will detail how I perceive Dragalia’s current game design and what Okada should focus on. I cannot provide my solution because I’m sure the company actually has an immeasurable amount of player and market data at their disposal, and should know what has to be done.
What Dragalia Lost Excels In
Dragalia Lost's most unique feature is being an action RPG with true real time coop gameplay. It functions exactly like an MMO you would play on your desktop, but on a phone. My previous experiences in mobile games were: Sdorica, Brave Frontier, FGO, Granblue Fantasy, and Destiny Child (KR). Most of these games had coop but in a turn based environment, which means that a player’s input had a lot of leeway in that information being distributed to other players. Some of these games had a coop that didn’t update their status until after the battle. I’d like to consider these coop functions as pseudo real time because they are merely stat updates and not actually cooperation with other players. Some mobile games do have real time coop, but the mechanics of the raid are just bosses that drop damage on everyone at the same time; the positioning of their characters didn’t really do anything and was more on resource management.
Dragalia Lost was real time, you can see other players move; their positions matter and skill usage having a significant impact on the gameplay. Sometimes requiring important inputs within a few seconds to make or break a run. I personally find this to be an extremely appealing feature in their design, and it is probably what kept me playing for so long; because of the friends I have made from running together.
Other notable traits:
A responsive development team that dishes out a lot of quality of life changes.
Maximum power is not locked behind a paywall.
Sleek and modern user interface.
Standard Cygames generosity.
Dragalia Lost’s Problematic Design
1. Statistical Power Limits
Dragalia Lost is very unique in which the power of the player isn’t directly within the power of the characters, but more so the player’s skill. Because of this there will always be people who are mechanically skilled and find the HDTs to be easy after an hour of learning, and there will be people who will never be able to do these fights. Purely because they are incapable of performing precise movements on a touch screen or because their phone sucks.
Here is where one problem lies in their design; pulling and gearing up in Dragalia has a reverse design compared to a majority of other games. The power fantasy doesn’t really exist and there is a hard ceiling on how strong a character can get.
Most mobile games give you the tools to obliterate the enemy through sheer brute force. Dragalia gives you the tools to ENTER the fight but not necessarily beat it.
This can be disappointing to many players because they would feel that their investments are pointless since it doesn’t enable them to win in the high dragon trials. If they are mechanically incapable of executing their rotations (how you control your character's attacks) then no matter how much investment they won’t succeed still. On the financial side, if a player knows that pulling or spending won’t result in getting the satisfaction of winning then they are less likely to financially support the game. If you like this design, good for you; because I love this design. I love perfectly executing runs. I love the concept of dying in one hit because I fall within the hardcore bracket. But I also recognize that the hardcore bracket is extremely tiny and in no way can support a game on its own.
A lot of players tell others just to wait, just like how our standard HDTs reached a point where most could be solo’d. But how long does a player have to wait to start on their High Dragon Trial Tier 1 weapons; 6 months or next year? When a player reaches that point, what else do they work on if they are finished with all the other parts of the game? This leads to my next point on why this is a problem and why it’s so vocal now compared to when there were only standard HDTs.
2. Lack of a long progressive midgame
The midgame in year one of Dragalia’s life was mostly Imperial Onslaught. It was a long grind but was integral to progression. Most players would be around here because it took months to build all the dojos and altars. Fast forward to today with several IO drop buffs and a treasure trade; players are just completing their dojos at an accelerated pace. People did not complain about HDTs back then because a lot of people weren’t done with IO yet. I grinded 3 months straight doing wing refills back when doing IO actually had a fail rate (remember when IO wasn’t done in 10 seconds back then lol). Where does a player transition to from IO? Most players concurrently do IO with void because voids battles are very easy as well, and do not require much materials to clear the shop. Again, with more void battle drop buffs, the only content players had next to do was HDTs. The mid game is completely empty now because there is a huge gap between IO/Void and HDT.
Here is where a big chunk the frustration comes:
Have you ever noticed how, for the entire time you’ve played Dragalia Lost up to before HDTs, that you have probably never had to actually pay attention to anything in the game because it was completely autoable due to the natural power creep the game had underwent; and all you had to do was put on the right team with the right wyrmprints to win? Maybe you didn't have to always full auto, but the fights where you had to manually control did not require any extremely precise input.
Okada/Matsura had failed to design a system where a player would be able learn how to tackle the fight in an environment where FOUR RANDOM PLAYERS MUST ALL KNOW EXACTLY WHAT TO DO AND MUST ASSUME THAT THE OTHERS KNOW EXACTLY WHAT TO DO AND WHERE TO GO WITHOUT HAVING THE ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE.
This is very applicable to newer players but because of this non-existent teaching in mechanics; they end up severely under-prepared for HDTs. Not in characters or gear, but in personal mechanical skill. A player probably learned to use force strike a few times, but probably never learned how to alternate between 2C FS and 3C FS to adjust to more mobility or more skill gauge. Most players probably still just do rolls to dodge things instead of using FS. Since they weren’t ever mechanically tested in the game, combined with one shot death mechanics in the fight. They have never learned how to do proper rotations (knowing how to attack at the maximum possible amount) which allows a player to cover up their lack of gear with skill. Swords have 3C FS, and bows have 4C FS 4C, lance have 5C FS-cancel, and etc. These techniques are never taught in game so people typically lie clueless on why they aren't reaching overdrive compared to someone who has the exact same gear as them. It creates a negative experience on the player, leading to frustration and confusion on why they can’t win; even though they have been winning in the game by doing the same thing they had learned to do since the beginning: autoing and steamrolling through brute stats.
The game transitioned from typical auto battle game to an actual desktop design game with mobile controls. I grinded all the standard HDTs back when standard was the only difficulty, so I know that I’ve practiced enough to have absolute mechanical control over my characters in game. But I had to teach myself how to play, and this motivation isn’t present in everyone sometimes. A lot of people just want a guide, or a mentor, or someone to feed the information to get that quick win and feel good. And I cannot blame them, because its just a mobile game; typically something you play on the side or when you have free time. The early part of the end game shouldn't actually ask you for too much of your time and effort. (Masters and soon Agito being the absolute end game should be for the most dedicated until powercreep comes in and the next super hard end game boss shows up).
What Okada is Probably Trying to Focus on
Okada recognizes that there are obvious game design flaws, our budget is probably cut and we are getting reruns because they know if they do not change the game fundamentally; the game will not get better. There is probably less resources given to forming events at the moment.
- Punishing end game, because the highest difficulty can only be shallowly designed with a bunch of one shot mechanics because the lack of death in these type of games makes it too easy. (Healers can just keep healing and defense units just buff everyone so no one ever dies and still clears). A game that is too easy, gets boring real fast. A game that is too hard, makes people rage quit.
- Buffing all the drops of the midgame, causes the midgame to be completely missing. Based on Okada’s “This Month in Dragalia Lost” he is trying to revive the mid game by adding 6th circles, expert void battles, new more difficult void bosses, as well as a unique upgrade material in the very hard storyline. So I know he recognizes this problem already.
- Lack of transitioning players to be more mechanically proficient. Again, Okada recognizes that the game fails to teach players how to become better mechanically over statistically. The new void boss coming soon is stated to utilize a lot of HDT mechanics and hopefully serves as a good teaching ground for players who are working towards entering HDT.
- Lack of smooth power curve. Okada has made augments very accessible, probably with the intent that it will help players be able to transition to expert easier. By being able to cheese expert, players will finally have a soft end game to farm in because the expert grind is REALLY long. In addition, adding augments to void and standard HDT probably incentivizes players who are stuck between void and expert HDT to try to grind standard because before there was zero reason to do standard HDT, it was empty content. Augments are just one layer of a mid game progression function because they are only presented to the player in the midgame. I’m expecting Okada to structure the game where players will be able to do expert HDTs more reliable with room for error while Master retains the title of being the content for the most hardcore players.
Lastly, the only thing Okada has to focus on after restructuring the game to have a smoother progression curve is to fix his monetization. The shop is severely outdated with most of the prices being extremely high for something so worthless; such as talon stones and skip tickets.
Okada, at least take from Priconne. Sell skip ticket packages in larger quantities, and add smaller value packages for your smaller spenders. Most aren’t going to make the jump to spend 40 USD on a sunstone pack. Even if you took out the dia from one of the sunstone packages and drop the price to 15 dollars, people will bite because the price tag for unbinding one 5* dragon without needing a dupe “feels” valuable enough on its own. Add more cosmetic weapon skins. Bring more value to your shop, it is failing at making people feel a sense of value. But not take the easy way out in shilling pay to win garbage.